"Whose Church is It?" by Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy
WHOSE CHURCH IS IT?
A Sermon for Northminster Church
By Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy
July 17, 2022
For several years, in every church I pastored, I promised that I would never preach a sermon more than once in that church. (I am ashamed now. I now realize how egotistical it was for me to make that promise and assume that every member in the congregation would remember every one of my sermons.) When wiser I realized that every church has important issues that need to be addressed biblically and repetitiously for a church’s own good. This morning I am preaching a sermon I have preached before in this pulpit—not word for word but the same scripture passage, sermon title, and subject. And I am starting with a story I have told more than once in worship here.
Without question the best teaching situation in my life—was when I served as the dean and professor of religion in Simmons University, an all-black school located amid the most grinding poverty in Louisville, Kentucky during the late 60’s and early 70’s. The students there were individuals who had felt a call to ministry apart from an education sufficient to do ministry. Without exception these would-be seminarians reminded me of the people whom Jesus blessed for “hungering and thirsting after righteousness.” My students were ravenously hungry for learning how to be better thinkers and ministers. I will never forget a morning in the classroom when a young man who was blind and taking notes in brail heard something I said that was important to him. Spontaneously, he said out loud, “Oh, I needed that.” Any teacher would have been moved by that response.
On another day in the same classroom, we were discussing the nature of the church—biblically, theologically, administratively, and programmatically. I could sense that an older gentleman in the class was having trouble with what I was saying. I knew he wanted to interrupt and within a moment the student blurted out emphatically, “I run my church!”
“What do you mean?” I asked with a smile.
“I mean just what I said,” his voice getting a little louder, “Why, just last week, one of my deacons messed up carrying out his assignment in worship and, from my pulpit, I told him, ‘Just sit down.’ I run my church.”
“Who gave you that responsibility?” I asked somewhat teasingly.
“What do you mean?” he said defensively.
“My question is clear, I think,” I responded, “Who gave you the church?”
The student sat in stunned silence that I finally broke saying, “I raise this important question with you because I always have believed that the church belongs to God and that we are servants in it and stewards of it. The model for the church was provided by the ministry of Jesus. That is what I have thought the Bible teaches us. Did I get that all wrong?”
The good-natured exchange of words between the student and me ended with the older man mumbling, “Oh, you know what I mean.”
Yes, I did know what he meant; his claim lacked neither clarity nor precedent. In the mind of this student, the church of which he was the pastor was his church.
Now, it’s one thing to say with pride “That’s my church,” speaking proudly, but quite another to make that statement possessively about that church.
In my experience, people who assume they own a church and take on the responsibility for running a church are not wise. We are all church! Without change a church that a few people claim to own and to run personally will rather quickly cease to be a church even though it may continue an organizational existence as just another social institution mistaken about its identity.
How I wish I could tell you that minister in my class was an exception rather than a norm in his thoughts, but that was not the case.
I cannot tell you that story without recalling another story from a few decades back lodged in my brain. One Sunday morning a New York cab driver picked up a man who asked to be driven to Christ Church in the city. Immediately, the cab driver looked perplexed and asked, “Do you mean Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick’s church out on Riverside Drive?” “No,” the passenger said. “Oh, then, you must mean Dr. George Buttrick’s Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church on 73rd Street.” Again a “no” rang out from the back seat. “Surely, then, you are looking for Dr. Norman Vincent Peal’s church Marble Collegiate Church the driver said.” When the man trying to find Christ Church responded negatively again, the cab driver said in frustration, “Sir, honestly, I did not know Christ had a church in this city.”
“Who owns this church? Who runs this church? Whose church is it?” These are the kind of questions as old as the people and institution of churches. They provide profound insight into whether an institution that claims to be the church really is a church or just another social group in town.
Take note of what happened in the church in Corinth to which the apostle Paul wrote letters. A congregation formed only a generation after the ministry of Jesus and his teachings about the church, Paul discovered that the church was splintering into competing factions. Different groups of Christians in Corinth had developed different loyalties to different ministers and a variety of control issues related to leadership.
Members of a so-called "Paul Party" in the church boasted that they were the only members of the congregation who had been converted under Paul's leadership. "We were here at the beginning,” they bragged,” “Why, we heard Paul preach. He knows us by name. We got this church going. We know better than anyone else how to run this church."
Another group of people in the Corinthian congregation had become devotees of Apollos--a Greek leader whose group emphasized wisdom. You easily can guess the ID of members of the "Apollos Party": "We hope you don’t think we are boastful, but, after all, we are the intellectuals of this church, and we are best equipped to lead it." No offense.
Some of the factions in Corinth were more argumentative than others, swaggering with meanness parading as orthodox righteousness. For example, members of the party devoted to the apostle Peter seriously questioned the authority of Paul to be a leader in the church at all. According to these people, the man from Tarsus was too liberal for these pro-Jewish, anti-Gentile folks disturbed by the new and different people entering their fellowship. They kept insisting, "We need to get back to the good old days when law ruled with a heavy hand and there was not so much talk about loving each other, welcoming strangers, and going on and on about grace. We need to protect a conservative faith like that we find in the ministry of Peter, a faith endangered by Paul and his emphasis on faith, grace, and what he called ‘the greatest of these’—love. We are weary of hearing about love."
Not all Bible scholars agree with me, but I think that in the church at Corinth there also was a faction known as the "Christ Party." Members of this clique used the name of “Jesus” frequently, exuded religious-superiority, and many of them spoke with syrupy piety. "A pox on all other parties here," these people declared, "We follow only Christ."
What in the world had gone wrong in Corinth? The apostle Paul had called many in that church “saints.”
The correct answer to those questions of what had gone wrong in Corinth leaps out of the biblical text when that text is read in the original language—koine Greek—in which it was written. Look at verse 12 in today’s reading from 1 Corinthians. A repetitious emphasis is readily acknowledged by any reader of the Greek text who sees a recurring redundancy of the pronoun I. The first-person-singular pronoun appears three times in each statement. "I, indeed I, I am of Paul." "I, indeed I, I am of Apollos." "I, indeed I, I am of Peter."
There you have it! The “I’s” have it. Unbridled selfishness—ego centric people—had given birth to our question: “Whose church is it?” In other words, "To whom does the church in Corinth belong?" Some said, “to Apollos,” others said, “to Peter,” and still others said, “to Paul.”
When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, he wasted no time in addressing the central issue facing that Corinthian congregation. In his first sentence Paul wrote, "To the church of God which is at Corinth." The answer to the pressing question of ownership in Corinth then and in all churches now is the same—God! The church belongs to God who in Jesus Christ gave us a model of how people are to live individually and corporately. What is more, through scriptures inspired by God, we are provided specific character traits of a church, which if missing in an institution is a dead give away that that institution is not a church. Not even constructing an attractive and highly visible sign out front that has the word “church” on it cannot make an institution a church if that institution does not clearly exhibit a commitment to the way of Jesus and the traits of a church as envisioned by God!
Paul was angry. He shouted as he wrote, “Has Christ been divided?”
So, what do you think about Northminster Church? Who owns it? Let me share an example or two of what can be good for us and what cannot be so good for us.
Every aspect of our corporate life as a church should be shaped by the teachings of Jesus and Christian theology—both of which can be detected by how the congregation displays what Paul called the gifts of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
We must be honest with the bad and the good. Every church needs to deal with a mix of matters that if not watched carefully will hurt the church.
I have always thought that some of the worst things that happen in churches are efforts to run a church like a business. God, forbid! A business focuses on a strong institution; a church focuses on a strong mission. A business seeks monetary profits as a sign of success; a church seeks contributions to its budget to devote that money to specific ministries. A business nurtures leaders who are good supervisors and managers; a church nurtures servants the quality of whose leadership is directly proportionate to their compassionate involvement in support for others. A business wants a year-end profit to build a reserve fund; a church is at its best when it is giving money away. Business looks at a balance sheet; a church looks at its compliance with the beatitudes.
Businesses hire workers for all kinds of responsibilities; churches call ministers to be ministers, equipped with scriptures, leadership, and grace. Next Sunday a new minister will be in this pulpit equipped and excited as we will be. As I told the church when I began my ministry here, I said the church can fire me, but never can hire me. I hope both the church and the new minister understand that statement and serve together as God’s people.
Now, for another issue. The first book I ever wrote that was published in 1974 was entitled “Profile of a Christian Citizen.” The book was released at a difficult time—somewhat like our time though not as difficult as where we are now. I think at this moment I our country needs churches that know what Christian citizenship is and displays it. We have done that before here, we need to do it again, and we can do it again if we will.
I cherish the democracy in our land and its commitment to Religious Freedom, but I must say about political decisions the same thing I said about business. Knowing the difference between our government and our religions is critical. Many churches, this one included, who, in business meetings make decisions by votes. Honestly that has worked well for many. But never think that a church can decide what is moral and what is not by a vote in the church. God makes that decision. God’s church leadership is defined by servanthood. Its membership is inclusive, and its decision-making should be others-not-us oriented. That principle is applicable individually and corporately. Regularly we must look at our financial plan and our program of ministries to see if either is more about us than about others. If we are spending more money to satisfy our own interests and needs than we are to help others understand the exceedingly good news that we call the gospel and feel on their bodies the physical touch of people who care for them, we best take a serious look at to whom this church belongs. Remember the damage done in Corinth by people so absorbed in their own egos and personal preferences that they could not think of the community’s needs and God’s preferences.
Defined by the teachings of Jesus, the best prospects for a church are the people most in need of forgiveness, healing, a community of grace, and, often, monetary assistance. Jesus said he came to heal the sick not those already well. As for church members, those whom God invites among us, we best accept in fellowship and relate to in love.
In Northminster Church we speak of all our members as ministers. If we ever quit listening for God’s guidance with a positive response and decide to guide the church on the basis of our opinions and prejudices, we will remain in an interesting endeavor with really good people, but we will cease to be a church despite what we call ourselves or print on the sign out front.
Who owns Northminster Church? If the instinctive answer to that question cites any identity other than God, change must happen rapidly. However, as long as the answer to that question is “God—this is God’s church—and we are trying to do church God’s way,” we have not only a future but great potential and promise. Amen.